We Asked for High Gas Prices? — We Got ’em


Washington now has the highest gasoline prices of all 50 states, the Seattle Times reported June 21. The story was broken the day before by the San Diego Union, which offered it as a good-news story: California’s prices were no longer the highest.

The Union quotes the web page gasbuddy.com, which lists average gasoline and diesel prices in the most expensive 25 states. As I write, Gasbuddy lists these as the top six average statewide prices at the pump for unleaded gasoline: $4.875 Washington;        $4.799 California; $4.707 Hawaii; $4.529 Oregon; $4.234 Nevada; $4.108 Alaska.        Idaho was further down the list, at $3.952.

The newspaper stories say the cause of the high prices in Washington is the “cap-and-invest” law passed by our Democratic legislature a couple of years ago. The law set up a carbon-pricing program modeled on the nation’s only other one, in California. Washington’s law creates a state auction for permits to emit carbon dioxide. Industries that emit CO2 are required to bid against each other for the permits. The largest such industry are the oil refiners, who have refineries around Bellingham and Anacortes.

A year ago, the Washington Policy Center in Seattle — a free-market group critical of Cap and Invest — estimated that the state’s program could raise the price of regular gasoline in 2023 by 46 cents a gallon, and diesel by 56 cents. The Policy Center has a conservative bias, so progressive Seattle figures it’s O.K. to ignore it — except that in hindsight, its estimates were remarkably accurate. After two auctions held earlier this year by the Department of Ecology, the right to emit CO2 in Washington is now valued at about $48 a ton. That adds 44 cents a gallon to the cost of manufacturing gasoline, and nearly 55 cents for diesel.

And Washington now has the highest gasoline prices in the nation. This is not what state officials said would happen. A year ago, Fox News quoted Governor Jay Inslee as saying, “This is going to have a minimal impact, if any. Pennies.” On Jan., 11, 2023, before the first auction, Luke Martland, who heads the Cap and Invest program at the Department of Ecology, argued with Sen. Drew MacEwen, R-Shelton, about an estimate of 20 cents a gallon. MacEwen said it could be that high, and Martland argued against it.

But it isn’t 20 cents. It’s closer to 50 cents.

Having bid up the price of the CO2 permits that the state requires them to have, the refiners have now passed along the cost to consumers. Considering that the state has squeezed the refiners in the two auctions for more than $850 million — what would you expect?

And further, the people who invented “cap and trade,” which is what the system is generally called, wanted the oil companies to pass on the cost to consumers. The program’s purpose is to prod people into using less fossil fuel, and ultimately to switch to electric cars and trucks. If the program isn’t raising the price of gasoline and diesel, it’s not working.

There is a logical argument for making you pay more. Fossil fuels have long-term costs of pollution and climate change. The oil companies don’t pay those costs and they haven’t been passing them on to you. The cap-and-trade idea is to make them pay, and thereby make you pay, so that you will have an incentive to switch to electric cars and other applications of “clean” fuel.

Washington’s Cap and Invest law exempts farmers and fishermen. From an environmental view, this makes no sense. Agriculture, for example, is a big user of fuel — for pumps, tractors, trucks, and other equipment. If you want farmers to switch to clean fuel, why exempt them? From an economic view, it’s a different matter. Washington’s farmers produce wheat, apples, potatoes, and other products for national and international customers. Sticking them with a 50-cent-a-gallon penalty will put them at a competitive disadvantage. The fishing industry can say the same, as might some other industries that don’t have the same political clout.

Here is the larger problem. Even assuming that the Department of Ecology sets up the program right, auctioning off the right amount of CO2 to get us to change our behavior by the right amount — big ifs — why would the Evergreen State do this all by itself? The thinking seems to be that we have to set an example for other states to follow.

But what if we’re setting an example for other states NOT to follow? Washington has 2 percent of the population of the United States. Are the other 48 states, after us and California, going to say, “Hey, let’s do what they’re doing! Let’s raise the price of gas!” Their answer might be, “Let’s not.” And the ultimate purpose for the people of Washington to pay another 50 cents a gallon for gas is to save the planet. But our 7.74 million population is less than one-one-thousandth of the population of the planet.

Will we be the tail that wags the dog, or just a tail that wags?

Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey was a business reporter and columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in the 1980s and 1990s and from 2000 to his retirement in 2013 was an editorial writer and columnist for the Seattle Times. He is the author of The Panic of 1893: The Untold Story of Washington State’s first Depression, and is at work on a history of Seattle in the 1930s. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Anne.


  1. I don’t know about you Bruce, but I’m paying $3.99 a gallon for diesel at Shree’s, off 509 by the South Park transfer station.

  2. Even if this sort of grand virtue signaling by our politicians was a good idea, one could argue that our timing couldn’t have been worse. We also led the nation in Covid lockdowns, homeless populations and overall inflation in almost every critical sector of our consumer economy.
    The major components of our public transportation system are either years away from completion, or on life support because of staffing issues. My electric car arrives soon but there is a 6 month wait for my charger to be installed. But, my Governor just flew off to Paris to tell the world what environmental pioneers we are.

  3. I am disappointed in Governor Inslee and the legislature’s predictions regarding “cap and trade’s” impacts on gasoline prices.
    Incentive’s for electric vehicles, rapid transit, and more are great.
    Penalties for my driving my Toyota Rav 4 – 12 years old – are not.
    I can’t afford a new car and I darned sure don’t like being penalized for my modest 18-22 mpg.
    The same is true but more so for lower income groups.
    The agricultural community and fishing communities are – by law – exempt. And yet Ecology is ignoring the law.
    Politically, this will come back to haunt the Democrat party.
    I can easily see GOP pickups in the legislature and a turn in the Governor’s race.
    Shame on me for being asleep at the wheel and trusting Governor Inslee that this would add only pennies to the gallon.

    • I can only shake my head at the sheer desperate wishcasting that “can easily see” that Washington voters dismayed by higher gas prices would turn for solutions to the party of Trump, the party of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the party of Loren Culp and Tim Eyman, the party of book-banners, the party of racists and homophobes and election deniers and vaccine deniers and misogynists and xenophobes and land rapers and fetus fascists and insurrectionists. I can’t see it at all.

  4. This is an unbelievable regressive tax on the poor working class who must commute to their jobs in older fuel inefficient cars.
    No doubt the work-from-home democrat legislators are feeling smug about their so-called environmental win but the tax won’t hit them. So much for representing the working class.

  5. Being asked to do ‘more with less’ is one thing but now we’re at a point where we are only able to do ‘less with less’ — this is not a formula for prosperity.

    ‘dunderheadedness’ is the word that comes to mind!

  6. Perhaps another idea is that the Democrats that are running the state want to make it easier for people to make the decision to leave Washington for another state whose leaders are more concerned with their constituents and less enamored of “climate change”. Already last year as many people left the state as moved in.
    I’m a lifelong Washingtonian who is finding it harder to hang in there in this state that I’ve loved.

  7. This is just one of a number of dumb laws, bills and regulations to come out of the Democratic legislator (and Governor) in recent years. So much for a one party system. Frankly, its gotten old. That said I remember wishing the the Dems would take full control not so many years ago so that something would get done. DAM! Be careful what you wish for. Now I’m wishing the Republicans would all of a sudden become a viable, sensible alternative.

  8. Seattle’s gas price hikes are price gouging by Big Oil, which they can then blame on Inslee & Dems. Their profits are through the rough, which they spend on stock buybacks, new gas exploration, spreading climate disinformation & buying off Republican legislators, while they avoid spending on the essential transition to clean energy.

    Here’s from the latest IPCC AR6 Summary Report 2023, assembled by thousands of the world’s climate scientists:

    “Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health (very high \confidence). There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all (very high confidence). Climate resilient development integrates adaptation and mitigation to advance sustainable development for all, and is enabled by increased international cooperation including improved access to adequate financial resources, particularly for vulnerable regions, sectors and groups, and inclusive governance and coordinated policies (high confidence). The choices and actions implemented in this decade will have impacts now and for thousands of years (high confidence).”

    To protect our children’s futures, we need Big Oil to heed the climate scientists and change their business model NOW and not in 2050.


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